November (R)evolution

Bill Dixon / Untitled XI Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET



Bill Dixon
Considerations 1: 1972-1976
Fore : 1980

BD, trumpet; for “Places and Things” add Steve Horenstein, tenor sax; Alan Silva, bass.

For someone who has such an impressive body of work, Bill Dixon has a surprisingly low profile on the jazz scene. His music is revered by a knowledgeable few, contentiously discussed by some, and unknown by most. To reconcile this, we asked our friend Oliver, a former student of Dixon’s, for a remembrance or two:

Bill Dixon cut an impressive, charismatic presence across the Bennington College campus when I matriculated there on and off between ’75 & ’81. With his big beard, sheep-skinned fur collared winter coat, mongo eye glasses, and funky top hat, Bill could be found almost every day holding court with an eclectic entourage of students and other faculty (an entourage which at times, I believe, included feminist firebrand Camille Paglia) around lunchtime in the campus commons as he expounded on everything under the sun with the voice of a New England patrician that countered his furry, very black countenance.

Though I was not a musician, I did take a class with Bill: “Critique and the New Black Music,” it was called, or something like that. Bar none it was the most intense writing course I had, or could imagine having. It being Bennington College, there was but one other person in the class, which would essentially consist of Bill reading our feeble, semi-informed papers out loud back to us, stopping to make verbal comments, corrections, and/or just laugh at us in a weekly cringe-inducing session that would make even Borat sweat bullets. He insisted we carry dictionaries around with us and that if we ever (and I mean ever) heard a word we did not know the meaning of, we were to look it up immediately. Funny thing: not only did my colleague and I become better writers… we became writers.

Bill’s annual student concerts were always a huge campus event — seemed like the small performance space at an old carriage barn was always filled to the rafters as Bill conducted his latest, mini/micro/Mobius-shaped composition, always featuring an airy, elongated Bill Dixon solo… the dreams stuff are made of…

Oliver is, as he mentions, an author in his own right, and we highly recommend his books Dig Infinity!; The American Book of the Dead; and Keys to the Rain. Carrying a dictionary around apparently has its benefits.

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Recorded in the early-to-mid-Seventies and released on a small Italian label at the dawn of the new decade, Considerations 1 is an impressive sampler of Bill Dixon’s work. Even within the relative obscurity of Dixon’s catalog, it’s overlooked due to its rarity. In Taylor Ho Bynum’s wonderful and lovingly comprehensive Dixon post yesterday (a coincidence — the hive mind at work), this album doesn’t even merit a mention.

“Places and Things” is a haunting small group number with contributions from Dixon acolyte Steve Horenstein (who mostly just shadows Dixon’s lines in the latter third of the piece), and remarkable work from Silva. It plays with and creates an unusually delicate sense of space and time, constantly expanding and then refolding in on itself. The interaction between the players is confident and rhythmically astute. Dixon expertly varies the intensity of his playing, often sounding like several instruments. For a piece that might initially seem formless, it actually progresses at a nice clip – its 12 minutes fly by surprisingly quickly, sustaining an oddly welcoming melancholy mood.

The six minute trumpet solo “Long Alone Song” is quite lovely and evidence of what THB notes as Dixon’s desire to make his trumpet sound like an orchestra. There’s a richness of tone and expression here, but also a naked intimacy that comes from the format. In this week’s New Yorker, Marc Fisher’s article on WBAI legend Bob Fass (article not online, but there is some audio here) at one point cites Miles Davis’s line on choosing “not to play all the notes you could play, but to wait, hesitate, let space become a part of the configuration.” Though Dixon might blanch at the Miles reference, it’s incredibly apt, as Dixon fearlessly embraces hesitation, and makes space an integral part of his musical framework.

“Shrike” is pure fun, a minute of skronk, proving that Dixon can do more than just bring the slo-core hush.

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Destination: OUT had the privilege of seeing Dixon play a transfixing duet with Henry Grimes at the Stone last fall. Dixon treated the trumpet with echo and reverb. Occasionally he blew through the mouthpiece to create a rhythmic effect not unlike beat-boxing, which he then looped and layered with hushed, delicate, and breathtakingly lyrical trumpet tones. You could hear strong elements of hip hop and dub in the sound, all filtered through Dixon’s strong jazz sensibility to create something new. Further proof that he continues to push his music forward into exciting realms. What is it about septuagenarians making some of the most vital music in jazz today? All hail the old masters — conquistadors!

Category Bill Dixon

7 Responses to November (R)evolution

  1. Wild coincidence! And just after I saw your post, I got in my car, turned on the radio, and WKCR was playing the Taylor/Dixon/Oxley record. So I guess Dixon is in the air this week.

    You’re right, it was an oversight on my part not to include Considerations in my post. It’s cause I don’t have it! My friend Andrew played it for me once, and it killed me, but I couldn’t write about it without being tortured by its absence. So great thanks for putting a bit of it up here!

    And I also was at that Grimes/Dixon duo gig at the Stone last year. Beautiful, indeed. And I never thought of it in terms of a hip hop or dub influence, that’s an interesting take.

  2. Though I should mention, Shrike and Long Alone Song are available on the Odyssey set, but the Silva track is just spectacular.

  3. Wow. These just might be my favorite tracks ever put up here on the site. Maybe just the mood I’m in today, but damn, these a beautiful.

  4. Thanks for the site, the music and esp for Dixon’s tracks. Hadn’t heard anything by him and it was just what I needed today.

    I second Shannon’s appreciative comment above–the mood I’m in.

    And please add my local jazz music site to your list–KSDS fm or in San Diego.

    I’m adding you to my bloglines. Wonderful place for the writer who seeks inspiration and the appreciator of music in all of us.


  5. Bill Dixon is a marvel. He has a gravitas and dignity that others rarely attain. He was born on Nantucket Island and actually was part of the landing in the Phillipines during World War Two.

    I tried to get him a grant but failed. I remember visiting him in his Bennington office. It gave him job security and the prestige of academia gut it was frustrating.

    Why, you my ask? Most of his students were trust fund cases and guitar jockeys. This made it a handful to set up fun student ensembles.

    I well recall the edge of rage in his booming low voice when he said “If I had my way I”D BREAK EVERY GUITAR IN AMERICA!!!”

    His early half release on Savoy SVY10794 is available and wonderful with a composition entitled “Winter Song 1964″.

    It is a septette with George Barrow, t sax, Ken McIntyre a. Sax and oboe, Howard Johnson, tuba and bari sax, Dave Izenzon and Hal Dodson on basses and Howard McCrea, drums. The other part of the cd involves some comparably impressive work by Archie Shepp who sounds better than ever having recovered fully from a lip tumor and he’s doing stunning work with Tauregs in Paris for his own label Archieball.

    Now try to find work by Laurence Cook. He’s worked with Bill for years a magical allegorical drummer who is on Wraparound, the first Joe Morris recording and he can also be found on Bobby Naughton dates.

  6. I agree with Chris Rich. Bill Dixon is a marvel.

    One small point, however. I played guitar at Bennington with Bill from 1974 through 1980. If Bill wanted to break every guitar in America, he never mentioned that to me.

    He did make throw away my pick. I had to develop a strong and fast right thumb to produce the lines and rhythms Bill required without the clicking he despised.

    My recollection is that not many of his students during those years were guitarists.

    As for “guitar jockeys,” I wouldn’t know about that. Can’t really see how one could play a guitar while riding it. Sounds painful.

  7. I have been seeking this record for an eternity………re-up? Send me a link? Please?

    I have got rare Bill Dixon, Alan Silva and other gems for bartering!